The first morning walk had occurred purely by accident. Plagued by nightmares involving her recent possession by the monstrous Dark Nebula, Elise had been unable to sleep and decided to take her morning walk early, before even the rest of the castle had awakened, and halfway through her walk, she’d crossed paths with Bikaia, Dreamland’s new king, returning from his morning sparring session. The walks thereafter were carefully calculated to coincide with Bikaia’s return to the castle. Elise’s dresses might have been coordinated, too, and she might have insisted that her lady’s maids do her hair a little more elaborately and her cosmetics a little more dramatically.
Elise fluffed her hair and adjusted her bodice, showing a little more of her breasts than was strictly appropriate, but—she reasoned—at the point where she was purposefully waiting for the young king of Dreamland to return from his sword practice, specifically so she could see him all disheveled, it only made sense to be bold.
“Hello, Your Majesty,” she said, trying to mirror the famous capital accent.
She didn’t sound regal. She sounded like a small child trying to play the role of a better, more polished woman. Why did the other royal and noble women sound so much more elegant than she did? Elise paused and swallowed. Despite her high rank, she knew it was unlikely Bikaia would ever desire her. She was the daughter of a duchess of a backwater duchy, whose greatest exports were lumber and fish, and Bikaia had so many other, more appealing brides.
There were the princesses of Floralia, Patch Land, and Seventopia as well as numerous other noble and royal women competing for the young king’s affections. Even the witch-queen of Traumwald, a woman who—before Bikaia—had kept negotiations with Dreamland to a minimum, had teasingly suggested slipping a love potion into Bikaia’s wine. At least, everyone assumed the witch-queen was merely making an uncomfortable joke; Bikaia had smiled uneasily and had taken appropriate precautions.
“Hello, pet,” Elise murmured.
She would never find the courage to call him that.
Her heart raced. It was a little easier for her to conceptualize calling him ‘dearest.’ What would it be like to call him an endearment? To greet him each morning as dearest. To pull him close to her and hug him and kiss his soft lips. She shuddered.
“Hello, Bikaia,” she whispered to the morning air.
No man’s name should ever sound so sweetly on her lips, and yet his did. It sounded like magic, like the first brush of winter wind whipping through the treetops.
Sweat plastered Bikaia’s hair to his forehead and—most temptingly—had drenched his thin, white tunic, making it cling to his arms and chest in a way that would have otherwise been wholly indecent. While Elise couldn’t see the exact curves of Bikaia’s pectorals or abdominal muscles, she could see enough to set her imagination ablaze with the most unladylike fantasies. As a royal woman, likely bound to an arranged marriage and with a duty to produce heirs, Elise had heard horrible tales of what happened to women on their wedding nights. But Bikaia…oh, kind, sweet Bikaia! Elise just knew he would be a gentle and considerate lover. A warm flush spread to Elise’s cheeks.
Once Bikaia drew nearer, Elise dared look at him, her eyes meeting his without flinching. Exertion had given Bikaia’s cheeks a warm, red flush and made his eyes brighter and grayer.
“Good morning, Elise,” Bikaia said.
Didn’t her name sound so beautiful coming from his soft lips?
“Good morning, Your Majesty,” Elise replied.
A crack of thunder split the air, and a man appeared. He was snow-pale with blond hair and soft, gray eyes. His clothes were strange, all-white and trimmed with gold. Elise furrowed her brow uncertainly. Then, with lightning-like speed, the man cleared the space between them. His hand reached for Elise’s bodice, pulling it up. With his other hand, the man tried to wrap a heavy shawl around Elise’s shoulders. “You should not tempt good men away from the path of righteousness, you hussy!” the man intoned. “Don this modesty shawl and cover yourself up!”
Elise slammed her hand into the man’s chest, unleashing a burst of ice magic. The shawl fell to the ground. “How dare you?” she asked.
“Witch!” the man exclaimed. “How dare you use powers that do not come from God?”
With a crackle of fire and lightning, Bikaia drew Galaxia. “How dare you assault a woman?” he asked. “If you wish to meet a god, I’ll show you the bite of Galaxia of the Sacred Fire!”
“I was only teaching her to behave as a woman ought to!” the man declared. “She should not be putting her bosom on display in such a terrible manner!”
“An’ what gives you the right to go ‘round an’ telling women how to dress?” Elise snapped.
The man shook his head and sighed. “I fear you are already too far gone. If only you were married to a noble man, one who might guide you down the path of righteousness.”
Elise’s face grew hot. “I might done be married to a noble man if you weren’t ‘ere and ruinin’ my chances with him!”
“Who are you?” Bikaia asked.
“I am a messenger from the future!” the man declared. “In the future, men’s ignorance has caused Dreamland to become ravaged and lifeless!”
“How?” Bikaia asked. “If there is some dark force threatening Dreamland, I shall smite it as I have countless others.”
“No!” the man replied. “What destroyed the world is…female presenting nipples.”
“How?” Bikaia asked.
“How?” the man echoed.
“How did—” Bikaia waved vaguely to his chest. “—nipples destroy the world?”
“Female presenting!” the man declared, pointing at Elise.
Elise, who had read more books concerned with anatomy than was proper for a woman, stared blankly at the man. Never in her life had Elise heard of “female presenting” nipples.
“So…” Bikaia trailed off. “How is Elise’s bosom going to destroy the world?”
“Well, I wasn’t actually there,” the man said, “But I heard someone once saw a female presenting nipple, and boom! End of the world.”
“Wait,” Elise said. “I don’t understand.”
“Agreed,” Bikaia added. “I feel like you’re neglecting some crucial details. For example, around the castle, we have many beautiful works of art depicting the goddess Nova’s bare breasts, but I’ve yet to meet anyone moved to destruction by the sight of her.”
“I’m not leaving out any details. It happened just like that. Nipple. Boom! Everyone dead. Now, I am a great hero with the power to warp reality, so I travel through time, making—”
“A great hero who gropes women’s bosoms,” Bikaia deadpanned. “You’re so heroic, I feel like I might just swoon.”
“I was not groping her breast.”
“Oh, I apologize. You were merely reaching beneath her dress to adjust it to your liking. Did you also grasp her shift while you were doing it?” Bikaia asked.
“You’ve nothing to be so high and mighty about,” the man sneered. “You’re the product of sin yourself! Your mother seduced a prince of Dreamland and steered him away from the path of righteousness!”
“My mother was a chambermaid,” Bikaia said, his voice strained. “Do you truly believe she had any choice? Do you think my father would have listened to her protests even if she voiced them?”
Elise lunged forward, ice magic arching towards the man, but before she reached him, he vanished with another sharp crack. Slowly, Elise halted, her chest heaving. The man was gone.
A throat cleared. “Elise,” Bikaia said.
She inclined her head towards him. “Yes, Your Majesty?”
Bikaia’s hand lighted on her cheek. Elise stiffened and swallowed past the lump in her throat. Her heartbeat quickened as Bikaia’s face moved into view. “I’m certain there’s a spell we can use to find that heinous man,” Bikaia said. “I shan’t let any man assault a lady and remain unpunished.”
“I know,” Elise said.
Bikaia swallowed and smiled awkwardly. “I had wondered, though, about something you said. Have you been…trying to get my attention?”
Elise bit her lip and nodded haltingly. “This wasn’t how I’d hoped you’d find out, Bik—Your Majesty.”
“For what it’s worth,” Bikaia said, “I did notice the difference. I thought you looked so beautiful when I saw you standing there, framed by the roses. And the way the sunlight caught in your hair took my breath away.”
“I had thought,” Bikaia said, “That we might chase this fiend together, and after we find him, we should return to Dreamland and—if you will it, sweet Elise—begin planning our wedding.”
Happiness bloomed inside her. “Yes!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms around Bikaia’s neck. “Yes, more than anything!”
Bikaia nodded. “Then, let’s find that monster. I only pray that we can thwart his villainous schemes before he warps reality beyond recognition.”